Panel rules on former Durham DA Tracey Cline’s bid to regain law license

Former Durham County District Attorney Tracey Cline regained her law license Monday at a hearing before a State Bar disciplinary panel.

Cline, who was ousted from office in 2012, has not practiced law for about six years.

Don Prentiss, chair of the panel, said the three-member panel focused on comments Cline made during testimony Monday about approaching things the right way. The State Bar oversees attorneys in the state.

“I think that struck all of us, that you appreciate not only to do the right thing but to do it the right way,” he told Cline. “And that made a lot of difference to us in acknowledging that you probably approached some of these issues the wrong way despite feeling strongly about your conviction in those matters.”

After the hearing, Cline pointed to “God’s grace.”

Cline’s legal challenges go back to 2011 when she thought several defense lawyers and Durham County’s Chief Resident Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson had conspired with a reporter with The News & Observer to discredit her, the paper has previously reported.

In September 2011, The N&O published an investigative series that focused on complaints against Cline in four cases. The reports outlined defense attorneys’ concerns about questionable State Bureau of Investigation work and contended Cline withheld evidence that could have been beneficial to their clients.

In 2012, Cline sued the newspaper, contending that series had libeled her. The lawsuit was dismissed in 2016 after Cline failed to respond to court papers filed in the case in a timely manner, the N&O reported.

Cline was ousted from the District Attorney’s office in March 2012 by a judge who ruled she had made statements about Hudson with malice and reckless disregard for the truth.

In June 2015 the State Bar grievance panel found Cline had violated professional conduct rules related to statements she made against Hudson and in seeking prison records for two inmates, the N&O reported.

The panel ruled that her law license would be suspended for five years, but she could reapply for her license after two years, the N&O reported.

Any time that she had not practiced between 2012 and 2015 would apply toward the two-year-suspension, the panel ruled, the paper reported.

‘I accept responsibility’

Monday’s hearing included an opening statement and testimony from Cline, who appeared to be alone at the hearing.

She pointed to statements from the initial disciplinary panel that it agreed she thought she was doing the right thing in seeking the recusal of a judge.

“The intention [of the discipline] was for me to realize what I did what I did was wrong, and I accept responsibility for it 100 percent, but also to come back and practice law,” Cline said. “I have been a public servant for over 20 years.”

Cline outlined what happened in the last eight months she was district attorney and how she responded to concerns raised about some of her actions in a handful of cases. She said she felt documents proved that some of the accusations Hudson and others had made, including withholding evidence, were incorrect and unfair.

Cline said she then filed a motion that Hudson be recused from hearing cases in Durham County.

“The words I used were harsh. If I had a do over, I would have done it differently,” Cline said.

After the 2015 disciplinary hearing decision, Cline said she was glad that the order said she would be able to practice law again but she realized she “was still labeled as someone who didn’t tell the truth.”

“And that is what caused me to be really sad,” she said.

Cline said she went to her father’s home to be with family and friends, rekindle her faith, evaluate herself and decide whether she still wanted to practice law.

“It was a lot of prayer, home cooking, family friends, that gradually pulled me out of it,” Cline said about her depression.

During cross-examination Monday, Margaret Cloutier, the State Bar’s deputy counsel, outlined some actions that Cline failed to take in the days and months that followed the 2015 order.

Those actions included Cline not paying State Bar costs and fees due within 60 days of the 2015 order until April 2018 when she was again seeking to be reinstated. Another issue centered on her giving the State Bar her address and accepting certified mail sent to her home by the State Bar. At least twice, certified mail was returned, according to State Bar documents.

Cline said her address was accurate, but she was visiting her father and family off and on for a year in a community about 30 miles from Charlotte as she worked through her depression.

More recently, Cline said an attorney asked her to read through a civil case, and “I remembered how much I like the practice of law.”

In January that attorney, James Rogers, hired her as a legal assistant.

If her license was reinstated, Cline said she plans to work with Rogers doing civil litigation.

A reinstatement hearing for Cline had been scheduled in December 2017, but Cline didn’t show up for the hearing, the paper reported. Another hearing was held April 6, but her reinstatement was denied because she had failed to take some of the steps outlined in the order, according to the State Bar documents.

In June Cline submitted a petition for reinstatement, contending she has satisfied the requirements of the order, including not practicing law since 2012, or more than five years.

Virginia Bridges: 919-829-8924, @virginiabridges